Copa America will test soccer appetite in the U.S. ahead of the 2026 World Cup

When the first whistle of Copa América 2024 blows, defending champions Argentina will take on Canada beneath the Thursday night lights of Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Tens of thousands of fans will fill the massive $1.6 billion venue in Atlanta to kick off the 25-day event.

Copa América will be a litmus test for how far the United States must go to shrink the gap between casual and soccer-obsessed fans. While the latter is the ideal target for a tournament like Copa, it’s proven a difficult one to tap into in the U.S. But if successful, Copa can fuel the sport’s growth over the next two years as the first in a series of major international soccer tournaments in the U.S. in the run-up to the 2026 World Cup.

Tickets for Copa América went on sale in late February, though they appeared on secondary markets much sooner. While some matches have more demand than others, issues from past tournaments raise concern over how this summer’s event will go and whether fans will pay to fill the stadiums.

Organizers with CONMEBOL, the sport’s governing body in South America, have lofty expectations for the tournament, predicting it to be one of the most successful ones ever played despite the logistical challenges of organizing a match across 14 cities.

Speaking to The Athletic from CONMEBOL’s offices in Paraguay, Nery Pumpido, the confederation’s deputy secretary general of soccer, said planning has gone “very well” and the federation has had employees in the U.S. for over a year to help. “It is not easy organizing a tournament of the magnitude of this Copa América,” Pumpido said. “We hope it will be one of the best Copa América that has ever been played.”

The federation considered past experiences from 2016, when the United States became the first country outside South America to host the competition, to improve what fans see this summer, said Pumpido, a former Argentine player and coach. The Copa América Centenario was the first major event under CONMEBOL’s then-recently installed president, Alejandro Dominguez, who was elected in January 2016 and is currently in his third term.

“Domínguez today has completely changed what CONMEBOL is in every sense and, of course, the tournament is also going to be totally different from the one that was played in 2016,” Pumpido said. “Everything serves as experience and having had a tournament at that time helps now, but we believe that the world in seven years, and CONMEBOL as an organization, has changed. Especially with the past World Cups. Everything has changed.”

What do past tournaments say about ticket sale projections?

Copa América Centenario featured some of the tournament’s highest attended matches for the century-old competition. That year, a group-stage game at the Rose Bowl between Mexico and Jamaica featured a record crowd of 83,263, followed by the 82,026 fans who showed up for the 2016 final between Argentina and Chile at MetLife Stadium.

But these massive crowds were balanced by much smaller crowds during the games’ opening weekend. Costa Rica and Paraguay drew 14,334 fans at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, and Haiti and Peru attracted only 20,190 in Seattle at Lumen Field. Jamaica and Venezuela featured in Chicago before a crowd of 25,560 at Soldier Field. Critics blamed expensive tickets, limited media exposure for the tournament and Copa América’s also limited prestige outside of South America for the sparse crowds.

Ticket sales were also a concern at Copa América in Brazil in 2019, with organizers saying poor attendance at the start of the tournament was the result of errors in the ticketing process that year. The confusion led organizers to declare a sold-out crowd for Brazil-Bolivia when only 47,260 fans filled the 65,601-capacity Morumbi stadium.

While CONMEBOL has not shared how many tickets have already been sold for this summer’s Copa América, organizers say the numbers are promising. The confederation said that, as expected, fans have purchased the most tickets for matches featuring Argentina and Lionel Messi.

“Ticket sales are important because they give you a glimpse about peoples’ interest and based on the numbers we have, there’s great interest,” Pumpido said. “We believe that as Copa América gets closer, even as the first games get played, there will be even more interest.”

CONMEBOL estimates attendance for matches in 2016 averaged about 40,000 people per stadium, Pumpido said. The average capacity, based on all the stadiums selected for that year’s tournament, was around 70,000. 

“We noticed in South America that after the pandemic, the number of fans in the stadiums also grew and the public has also grown in the sense that they want to travel much more. This was seen at the World Cup in Qatar and now we are also noticing it in ticket sales (for Copa América), so, we think it’s going to be a very good turnout.”

The way CONMEBOL is selling tickets this tournament is also done differently from other major events, like the World Cup. Instead of partnering with a single entity to streamline the sale of tournament tickets, each Copa América venue is selling match tickets through their own preferred ticket partners. That adds another complex layer to ticket sales and the reason fans may be directed to a slew of third-party vendors, like Ticketmaster of SeatGeek when buying tickets through the tournament’s official website.

Lionel Messi, Copa America, Argentina

Lionel Messi and Argentina won the last Copa America in Brazil in 2021 (Alexandre Schneider/Getty Images)

What’s different about this year’s tournament? 

Some logistics have changed since 2016. This year’s matches, for example, will be played inside venues located near some of the largest Hispanic and Latinx populations across the United States.

Some of the venues chosen are also smaller. In 2016, the smallest of the six venues chosen to host games was Orlando’s Camping World Stadium, which holds about 60,200 people. This summer, two of the smallest venues chosen have a capacity of 18,467 in Kansas City and 25,500 in Orlando respectively.

And while the cost of entry remains a concern, tournament officials have long said ticket prices are in line with demand for similar high-profile events. Dynamic pricing is also being utilized, which varies pricing by market demands and ticket supply.

“People have come to buy a lot of tickets,” Pumpido said. “What we cannot control is the issue of the tickets being overpriced as Copa América gets closer, (and whether) those who bought them use them in another way (like reselling). We believe that from what has been demonstrated so far, the price point that has been set has been correct.”

Expensive tickets are a uniquely American problem. Earlier this year, in an interview with The Athletic, Major League Soccer commissioner Don Garber likened the United States to “the ATM for the soccer world.” In other words, there is plenty of money to be made in the market if leveraged correctly. That’s a big reason why we’re seeing so much interest in growing the global game domestically.

Right now, the lowest price for a standard admission ticket for Copa America’s opening game on June 20 between Argentina and Canada is $209 before fees. After fees, two tickets at that price point as of Tuesday come out to $528.60 for upper-level seating inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

That price may be an anomaly, given its opening game and Argentina’s rising popularity as the defending Copa América and world champions, as well as the draw of watching Messi and Angel Di Maria in what could possibly be their final major tournament as teammates with La Seleccion. For comparison, two resale tickets for the Chile-Peru game the following day in Dallas cost $100.

But even $100 may be out of reach for a casual fan in the United States, especially one that is not familiar with the prestige of Copa América.

Hard Rock Stadium

Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, Florida, will host this summer’s Copa America final on July 14 (Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

What about the TV?

As the market in the U.S. has grown, so has interest — and America’s media conglomerates have the chance to make the most of this surging interest. Fox, which owns the U.S. media rights for English-language broadcasts of Copa América and Euros, recently released its network schedule for both events. Fox will only air seven Copa América matches on its main network: the first two rounds of USA’s Group C, a Mexico-Ecuador group match, one quarter final match and the final.

While Copa América will be in the U.S., fans may be switching between following the South American tournament and the Euros, as the two are played concurrently this summer.

“It’s a really hard one to judge, to be completely honest,” Fox analyst Stu Holden told The Athletic, “because I think I know internally how the Euros will be perceived and seen. It’s going to feel like a mini–World Cup for people who are casual sports fans. I see some of that but I go back to the Centenario, which was here in 2016, and I didn’t expect it to be on the level that it was, and these were packed stadiums, phenomenal atmospheres.”

While there has been an influx of international competitions on American soil from international friendlies and foreign clubs hosting preseason tours, a tournament like Copa América offers a more streamlined and entertaining experience, Holden said.

And while the U.S. women’s national team has long been considered one of the best teams in the world, the men’s side lives off a much different narrative. That’s why this summer is also important for U.S. Soccer, Fox analyst Alexi Lalas said.

“If they were to have a really successful tournament, they can turn on that excitement,” Lalas told The Athletic, “and people (will) want to wrap themselves in the flag, want their team to do well. Especially in this day and age,  it is one thing that does unite us in a unique way. I think people are ripe for that.

“There’s an opportunity for this U.S. team. It’s not initially necessarily going to translate into ticket sales or something like that, but changing the way that they see that team is part of the job.”

The U.S. has its final friendly against Brazil on Wednesday in Orlando — a final test before turning their full focus to Copa América. The match is already on track to have an attendance of over 53,000, making it the highest attended U.S. men’s or women’s senior national team match held in the state of Florida.

That surging interest is why this summer may not be the last CONMEBOL event we’ll see in the United States, either.

“It’s where the World Cup will be in 2026, and that’s important to take into account,” Pumpido said. “We believe that the United States has also made great progress at the soccer level, although soccer is not the top sport. I think today, the sport has advanced a lot, and with the arrival of Messi, much more so. Of course, CONMEBOL will always have the United States in mind to be able to have tournaments in the future.”

Additional reporting: Adam Crafton

(Top photo: Jess Rapfogel/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

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